GLC: working for capitalism
In 1963 the Local Government Act set up the Greater London Council. At the time the Labour Party opposed the creation of the GLC, arguing that it widened the boundaries of the old London County Council too far and would lead to a built-in Tory majority. In fact, Labour won the GLC election in 1964 and that put an end to their campaign against the GLC. Twenty years after the 1963 Act the Tory manifesto for the 1983 General Election proposed the abolition of the GLC on the grounds that it was “wasteful and unnecessary”. This contrasts with earlier Tory attitudes to local government:
There are plenty of people who feel that local administration is wasteful and extravagant and hold that there should be a much tighter degree of Treasury control over spending. I pray you will never lend substance and ammunition to that charge.
(Earl of Home, quoted in Local Government Campaign Notes. 15 April 1954. p.8)
Again, in a document entitled Background Material for Election Address, issued by the Conservative Party Central Office in 1953 it is stated that
Conservatives believe that local government should be local and that decisions on local matters should be made with reference to local conditions, not in obedience to the rigid direction of a central . . . machine.
So. why the change in positions: why in 1983 did we see the Tories advocating the elimination of the GLC as a local government and the Labour Party fighting to keep it? The immediate answer is party-political. The fact is that the Tories lost control of the GLC, as well as the Metropolitan Counties which it also sought to abolish, and. rather than having a local government marching in the opposite direction of a powerful central government, it decided to abolish the former. This political distaste for the GLC was admitted in a speech by the Tory Opposition leader on the GLC, Richard Brew:
Leaving aside the ideologically committed, he (Livingstone) is seeking out the feminists and the gay activists. He is topping up these with the ethnic groups and the Irish. He is mobilising the anti-police brigade and he is seeking out the pressure groups CND. Babies Against the Bomb and so on. In other words he is going for the nutters.(Quoted in Citizen Ken by John Carvel, p.208)
And when “the nutters” are in a majority you abolish elections. They have psychiatric hospitals for such “nutters” in Russia and Brew shows that the Tory reasoning in abolishing the GLC was not very different from any other centralised state which refuses to hold elections because the electors cannot be trusted to vote properly.
The Labour-led “Save the GLC Campaign” has been a popular reformist movement in London and, as Edward Heath pointed out in the House of Commons, the Tory decision to abolish the GLC has had the totally unintended effect of making Ken Livingstone one of the most popular politicians in London. If the polls are to be trusted, it seems that abolition is sufficiently unpopular to result in serious Tory losses in London constituencies in the next General Election. Patrick Jenkin, the Minister responsible for pushing the abolition Bill through the Commons, is now politically ruined and the government appears to have handed the Labour Party a gift.
As the GLC is buried a myth is in danger of being born: the myth of “GLC socialism”. It is a common belief amongst many leftists that the GLC under Livingstone was responsible for making moves towards socialism in one city, and the further we drift away from the period in which this is supposed to have happened the more elaborate the legend will become. Let us look at what these so- called socialist measures were which the GLC implemented.
Firstly, they lowered the fares on London Transport, only to have this action ruled illegal by the capitalist Judges. As we pointed out at the time of the so-called Fair Fares campaign, socialists want no fares, not low fares. The trains, the buses and the rest of the transport system should belong to the community as a whole and when they do we will not have to pay to use them. Such free access, and nothing less, will be socialism. The GLC move to lower fares by rate subsidy was an understandably popular reform and was in line with transport policies in other European capital cities. But it was not compatible with the profit system and was thus ended by the central state. This is the inevitable fate of any city government which attempts to impose rules upon capitalism which are unacceptable to the capitalists on a national level.
Secondly, the GLC gave grants to several organisations of workers seeking facilities which would not be granted by central government. We are not denying that many of these facilities were put to good use (we refer to those which were not politically reformist causes) and that the GLC won many friends that way. But, as GLC defenders were at pains to point out throughout the anti-abolition campaign, these grants to radical groups amounted to only 0.6 per cent of their annual budget. In a socialist society women would not need to fill in numerous forms and negotiate politically with leaders before they can have a centre to meet in; if Irish people living in London require a cultural centre they shall have free access to the space and buildings available and will not have to be beholden to some government body in a socialist society.